PARIS: It was a very original way to release a new title: live in the studio on the evening news, the Belgian star Stromae answered a question by launching into “Hell”.
A cleverly choreographed moment for the million-selling rapper, but also fitting as a news item since they had discussed the dark side of the music industry.
“I’ve thought about suicide many times, and I’m not proud of it,” he sang. “Sometimes you feel like that would be the only way to shut them up, All these thoughts are giving me hell.”
Mental health issues are nothing new in music, as the experiences of Kurt Cobain, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and Ian Curtis of Joy Division make clear.
But while romanticized ideas about “tortured artists” often left vulnerable musicians feeling trapped in their problems, a new generation hopes that open discussion and support can keep them from turning into a death sentence.
Stars like Stromae, Adele and Billie Eilish are credited with dismantling taboos around discussing mental illness.
And a shocking wave of suicides between 2017 and 2019 – including dance star Avicii, The Prodigy’s Keith Flint, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington – was a major wake-up call.
“All those names are dead in the space of three years,” said Rhian Jones, a British journalist who wrote a book to help musicians, “Sound Advice.”
“The industry can no longer absolve itself of responsibility for the health of its artists, nor deny the existence of the specific pressures that accompany a musical career.”
Several studies have recently found that music professionals suffer from psychological distress well above average rates.
France’s INSAART, which supports artists and technicians, found that 72% showed signs of depression compared to 12% of the general population, while an Australian study said a music career erased an average of 20 years of lifetime.
This may partly be due to artistic temperament, but factors such as job insecurity, incessant touring, late nights, and ready availability of drink and drugs are often the deciding factors.
“Because music is seen as a profession-passion, there’s this idea that they have to be grateful and never complain,” said psychologist and former artist manager Sophie Bellet, who helped lead the INSAART study.
Irma, a Cameroonian-born singer based in France, said it was when the action stopped that things were most difficult.
“A tour is an extraordinary life, a cocoon. Coming home is complicated,” she told AFP in 2019.
“When the tour stops, you’re like, ‘Why am I here?’ In the midst of all your instruments, you are lost. This life is not real,” she added.
“Pressure, Judgment, Criticism”
“Being in the industry, especially if you’re lucky enough to be successful, brings a lot of attention, pressure, judgment and criticism,” said Frank Turner, the British singer-songwriter, who addresses his own mental illness and addiction issues. -on with the recent single “Havn’t Been Doing So Well”.
“I had a moment around the release of my 2019 album ‘No Man’s Land’ where the social media buildup got so intense that I seriously debated quitting.”
The industry acts late.
Labels are finally thinking about preparing their stars for the pressures of a career in the limelight (“We can’t kill all our artists,” as one Rolling Stone exec put it).
A number of charity groups, such as Help Musicians in Britain and Backline in the US, provide invaluable advice and support, including hosting sites at festivals.
But more is needed, especially as Covid restrictions ease.
“It would be tempting for managers and agents to pack papers with a lot of shows to make up for the loss,” Jones said. “But we know that a busy touring schedule…is a potential health disaster.”